Archive for show business

Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd


It undoubtedly speaks to my present state of mind that I wasn’t crazy about Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer. Someone recommended it to me online just knowing I’d love it, and the title certainly sounds like the kind of thing I’d really go for, for a multiplicity of reasons. But the title mis-sells it. I was expecting and hoping for a real-life story perhaps mixing elements of To Be or Not to Be, I am a Camera, and Schindler’s List, featuring real-life derring-do and heroism by a cabaret performer deep in the heart of the Third Reich…

Instead, the book’s subject turns out to be an American flim-flam artist, vaudeville manager and impresario from Troy, New York named Freeman Bernstein. His “hustle” of Hitler consisted of selling him a few tons of scrap metal under the premise that it was a shipment of nickel, much in demand as Germany was preparing for war. Even as a swindle this strikes me as rather contemptible, lacking whimsy or creativity, just kind of a bottom-feeding theft. I’m glad it happened to Nazis, but if it happened to anyone else I’d say, “Clap that dude in irons and bring him bad food.” Further, the book, in the tradition of its subject, keeps you on the hook for over 300 pages before finally delivering its underwhelming story. It is preceded by pages of lore about the guy’s show biz career running amusement parks and small time vaudeville houses, and crossing paths with the occasional person of note, such as Mae West, to whom he once tried to sell some fake jewels. (It’s not so easy to sell fake diamonds to Diamond Lil).

The book is a labor of love by Bernstein’s great-nephew Walter Shapiro and has the flavor of family anecdote, a long, winding bar-room story at long last set down on paper. I’m going to hang on to it for awhile and perhaps mine it later for vaudeville lore. But at the moment I am much less interested in vaudevillians per se than in VAUDEVILLIANS WHO TOPPLE NAZIS, know’m sayin’?

More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People

Posted in BROOKLYN, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People, ME, My Shows with tags , , , , , on July 27, 2016 by travsd


Today happens to be the birthday of both Fleming W. Ackerman (a.k.a “Colonel Speck”) and Major Edward Newell (a.k.a. “General Grant, Jr.”). (Click on the links to learn more about these illustrious Little People.

If the odds of a Little Person being born are small, and the odds of a performing Little Person even smaller, think how small the odds of TWO performing Little People being born on the same day! Seems to me an auspicious time to announce here my upcoming talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, entitled More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People. 


For centuries Little People have been a mainstay of popular entertainment. In this illustrated talk, I will trace the historical ups and downs of very short-statured entertainers from medieval times through the era of P.T. Barnum and dime museums, to side shows and circuses, to vaudeville, to movies and television. Along the way, we trace the evolution of the Little Person’s image in popular culture, from one of cruel derision in the age of the court jester…to one of glamour, as personified by sex symbol and Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage…to a virtual return to carny days on reality tv.

The talk will take place Monday August 22, 2016 at 7pm at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Ave, Brooklyn. Tickets are $8

More info and tickets are here:

Some Vaudeville Fathers

Posted in Child Stars, Father's Day, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2016 by travsd


It being the annual day given to honor Paternal Progenitors it seemed appropriate to look at a few with a vaudeville connection, as we had done with Mothers previously. We have already blogged about all of these fellers. Just follow the link to read more about the gents in question.

And vaudeville fathers DESERVE a special tribute. You know who sucks? NON-vaudeville fathers. So many of our great stars FLED from stern, domineering, controlling male parents who disapproved of their career choice and their life style, only to be appropriately scorned for their obtuseness by the annals of history. There was Al Jolson’s father, the cantor, later dramatized in The Jazz Singer. W.C. Fields’ father, the produce grocer. Ed Wynn’s father, the dealer in hats. These men all wanted and expected their sons to go into the family business, tried to force the issue, and later got their noses rubbed in it. Joe Frisco’s father threw his dancing clogs into a woodburning stove. Such parenting techniques rarely work out.

Much more to the purpose are the show biz dads, who groomed their kids to join them in the family business. Here are a few:


Eddie Foy

Eddie Foy was the ultimate of course. That is why we put him at the top, and place his picture as the header of the posts. The proud papa paraded his seven kids across the nation’s vaudeville stages, showing off their talents, and turning them into a mini-industry. The act was so well-loved it was later memorialized a bio-pic starring Bob Hope. 


Gerry Cohan

Equally deserving of the top spot! If you’re like me, your view of the famously gentle, indulgent father will be forever shaped by Walter Huston’s loving portrait in Yankee Doodle Dandy. My mother thanks you, my father thanks you…


Joe Keaton

Okay, maybe the famously alcoholic, short-tempered and violence prone father of Buster Keaton doesn’t deserve a mug that says “World’s Greatest Dad”, but I think the fact that Buster never disparaged him, and remained close to him, and even cast him in his movies, speaks volumes.


Sam “Frenchy” Marx

Far from disapproving of his sons’ chosen career, he was often the designated audience plant whose job it was to cue laughter during their early days in vaudeville.


Lew Fields

One half of vaudeville’s greatest comedy team Weber and Fields, Fields later became an important Broadway producer in his own right, and instilled in his children Dorothy, Herbert and Joseph such love of the theatre that they all became important Broadway creators in their own right.


Arthur “A.J.” Jefferson

Stan Laurel’s father, a man of the regional U.K. theatre himself. He built Stan a toy theatre when he was a kid, and got him some of his first jobs.


Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Okay, Charlie Senior was the textbook definition of a deadbeat dad…but he was pretty crucial to Charlie’s career in the early years, and without a doubt provided him with a useful cautionary example of the evils of drink.


Danny Lewis

Is there any doubt that if the Lewises hadn’t grossly neglected their famous child by touring the vaudeville and nightclub circuits he wouldn’t be the man he is today. Jerry Lewis is a man who needs a LITTLE attention. The picture above shows three generations of performing Lewis men. The youngster is Jerry’s son Gary, who with his group The Playboys had some hits in the mid-60s.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


On the Marx Women

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, Women with tags , , , , on June 15, 2016 by travsd

Continuing our little series of posts celebrating the re-launch of I’ll Say She Is, today a look at the Marx Brothers’ wives. But first we begin with the most important Marx Woman of all —


Minnie Schoenberg Marx

“I Want a Girl (Just Like The Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad)” goes the old Tin Pan Alley tune. But it is amusing how little the Marx Brothers seem to have have lived this song, despite the epic extent to which they all adored their mother.

Not only did Minnie give birth to the boys, she can truly be said to have given birth to their act. Her parents Fanny and Lafe were itinerant performers themselves (a yodeling harp player and magician/ventriloquist respectively), and her brother was the famous vaudevillian Al Shean. The extended Schoenberg family were very much in the Marx Brothers lives and influenced them tremendously. Groucho was a mere boy when he resolved to go into show business, and Minnie instinctively became a very involved stage mother. As each of the brothers joined the act, she became their manager and remained so until they finally made it big. At a certain stage she was even in their act.

Minnie is famous in the lore of the Marx Brothers for being a crazy eccentric, the sort of woman who wore a wig and then took it off in front of everyone at card games to air out her sweating scalp. Physically, she is said to have resembled Chico and Harpo. Thus we are not terribly surprised to learn that none of the women the Marx Brothers’ married seems anything like the one-of-a-kind Minnie. They seemed to prefer beautiful, glamorous women (go figure!), in the majority of cases, gentiles.


Betty Karp (Mrs. Chico #1)

It is another cherished fact of Marxian lore that the tom-catting Chico became the first brother in the family to tie the knot. A pretty teenage fan from Chicago when he met her, Betty Karp lived amongst the chaos of the large Marx family (including a domineering mother and several handsy, oversexed Marx men) after she officially joined it in 1917. The most “traditional” of the Marxian wives, Betty suffered a quarter century of Chico’s infidelity and the gambling away of all his paychecks before he threw her over for Mary De Vithas (who resembled her) in 1942. Chico and Betty had one child, Maxine, who was to write a memoir about life with her dad.


Mary De Vithas (Mrs Chico #2)

“Mary Dee” was the actress who became Chico’s main squeeze in 1942 while he was still married to Betty. They didn’t make it legal until 1958, three years before Chico passed away.


Susan Fleming (Mrs Harpo)

Harpo married late, but he married well. For my full post on the beautiful chorine who became Mrs. Harpo Marx, go here. 


Ruth Johnson (Mrs. Groucho #1)

The second woman to enter the Marx family, like Betty she came along in plenty of time (1920) to be part of the whole extended brood, parents-in-law and all. The Swedish-American Johnson was initially Zeppo’s girlfriend and dancing partner in the act, but Groucho unceremoniously stole her from his little brother. They had two children: Arthur, who became a successful writer, and Miriam, whose life was overshadowed by substance abuse problems.

Groucho’s marriage to Ruth set a sort of template for all his relationships. While not the womanizer that his brothers were, he tended to be mean, dismissive and sarcastic, and often made jokes at his wife’s expense — in front of (often famous) company. Ruth became an alcoholic, which, ironically Groucho used as an excuse for leaving her in 1942.


Kay Gorcey (Mrs Groucho #2)

The wife of the most famous Dead End Kid Leo Gorcey, Kay fled her abusive husband and crashed at Groucho’s house because she was friends with his daughter Miriam. Groucho flipped for the gorgeous refugee and they were married in 1945. She would be the first of many “May-December” romances for him. But for poor Kay, it was to be a case of “out of the frying pan, into the fire”. Groucho was no wife beater, but his cutting criticism was relentless. Kay was to be the second of his wives that he drove to drink. The pair divorced in 1950. The marriage produced one daughter, Melinda, the rare Marx child to follow her father into life as a performer (although she did it mostly at her father’s instigation and abandoned it when she grew older).


Eden Hartford (Mrs. Groucho #3)

Eden was the sister of Dee Hartford, Howard Hawks’ wife, whom had appeared with Groucho in A Girl in Every Port (1952). Meeting Eden on the set one day, Groucho fell hard and they tied the knot in 1954. Eden was also an aspiring actress, although she had little success in that line. One of her most notable credits is an appearance as an Indian girl in Groucho’s Peter Minuit sketch in The Story of Mankind (1957). In 1969, Eden filed for divorce on the by-now-predictable grounds of “extreme cruelty”.


Erin Fleming (Groucho significant other)

The inclusion of Fleming here will rankle some; the pair were not married, the best that might be argued was a burgeoning common-law status. She was the personal assistant who came into Groucho’s life around the time of the divorce from Eden and wormed her way into his heart, ultimately becoming an apparent Svengali figure — one who might be thought of as having brought a little karma to Groucho’s life by being cruel and abusive to him. An account of these years is best read in Steve Stoliar’s tremendous book Raised Eyebrows, soon to be a major motion picture directed by Rob Zombie.


Helen Von Tilzer (Mrs. Gummo)

The kitschy valentine is because I could find no photo of the lady in question — not even in a group picture of the entire family. Not surprising, as she was the retiring wife of the most retiring Marx Brother. Previously I had been guilty of jumping to the forgivable conclusion that she was related to the Tin Pan Alley songwriters Albert and Harry Von Tilzer. But it turns out that A) Helen’s maiden name was Theaman. Her first husband’s last name was Von Tilzer, and he was no relation to the songwriters, because B) the songwriters’ real last name was Gumbinsky. Leaving Gummo’s wife even more obscure than she was previously. The pair married in 1929, just as the boys were getting a foothold in the movie industry; Gummo eventually became a big time agent.


Marion Benda (Mrs. Zeppo #1)

More Marxian spousal confusion. Zeppo was married to an actress named Marion Benda from 1927 to 1954. The confusion lies in the fact that there was a much more famous Ziegfeld girl by the same name. But Mrs. Zeppo was originally named Bimberg, and the famous one was originally named Mary Elizabeth Watson. The couple adopted two children.


Barbara Blakely (Mrs. Zeppo #2)

Undoubtedly the most famous Marx spouse of all, owing to the fact that her third and last husband was the Chairman of the Board Mr. Frank Sinatra. The lady who became Barbara Sinatra was born Barbara Blakely. Prior to marrying Zeppo in 1959, she had been a Las Vegas showgirl and a model, and had married and divorced a beauty pageant executive. According to her autobiography, Zeppo was jealous, possessive and rough with her. She started seeing Sinatra on the sly. She divorced Zeppo in 1973 and married Ol’ Blue Eyes in 1976. But the trio remained friendly and Barbara helped Zeppo through the ordeal of fighting the lung cancer that eventually killed him in 1979.

For tickets and info on I’ll Say She Is, go to :



Another Billy West (the “Progressive Minstrel”)

Posted in African American Interest with tags , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of 19th century performer William H. (“Billy”) West (1853-1902). We call him “another Billy West” to distinguish from two others…the silent comedy star and the contemporary voice-over comedian.

I acknowledge that this is really a TERRIBLE time to celebrate a blackface minstrel. Okay, there’s never a good time to do that. But yesterday we had the very unique Rachel Dolezal confessing on NBC Nightly News to using spray-on tan to enhance her faux blackness. And this morning we learn some maniac white supremacist murdered 9 black people in a South Carolina church.  So today is a particularly terrible time.

But we don’t need to celebrate Billy West and we certainly don’t condone blackface. The point of this is to talk about history, good, bad, warts and all. Besides, West was known as “The Progressive Minstel”, and you’ll soon see why, and it’s actually a good reason.


West was a blackface minstrel who became famous when he teamed up with George Primrose as the stars of J.H. Haverly’s Mastodons, a lavish traveling minstrel show with an enormous troupe, the biggest in teh country. By 1877 the team was successful enough that they broke off and created their own show.


Inspired by British impresario Sam Hague who toured the U.S. with his company of minstrels in 1881, Primrose and West began to emulate Hague’s more refined methods of showmanship, minimizing plantation material, adding classical music and ballet, and de-emphasizing blackface to the extent that, by the time they were done, there were only two blackface minstrels in the entire company, the end men (“Tambo” and “Bones”). They had great success with this method, although they had their critics within the industry.

In 1898, Primrose split with West and teamed up with the more traditional Lew Dockstader. And West continued on with West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee.


He died five years later and was buried at Green-wood Cemetery, which is how this post came to be written because I was walking through there a few weeks ago and came across this:


Note the symbolic tambourine and bones that adorn the monument.


To find out about  old school show biz including minstrelsyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


When Show Biz Looked at Show Biz: The Badness of the Bio-pics (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , on February 10, 2015 by travsd

Betty Grable and June Haver in the preposterous Dolly Sisters bio-pic produced by George Jessel (which we’ll talk about in part 2 of our series)

This post has been building for a long time. It came about because as an inevitable by-product of researching my first book No Applause (and for inspiration for my current show Horseplay), I would watch Hollywood bio-pics about famous vaudevillians (most were produced during what the Mad Marchioness and I call “The Boring Years”, the period between the late 1930s and early 1960s).

It’s an interesting sub-genre for so many reasons. Dramatizing real lives is notoriously difficult. There is built-in tension between fact and form.  It’s probably the most intrinsically flawed of all cinematic genres. Normally the studios which produced these films seem to have wanted to have their cake and eat it too, by basing their film on the life of a famous person (a box office draw), one who comes with a song catalog or other crowd-pleasing bag of tricks (another box office draw)…but then assuming NO responsibility to the truth on any level when it comes to telling the story of that person’s life. Ordinarily, under the right circumstances that would be fine. A certain amount of license is necessary in biographical storytelling, a story being a story and a life being a life. Stories and lives have different shapes. Even Shakespeare and Brecht bent the truth to serve art. You have to, to some degree. Sometimes for legal reasons, you must change names. Sometimes for practical purposes you must merge or omit characters. But where you stray from fact, you should at least be true to the spirit of the subject. It’s one thing to ignore the true story, it’s another order of heresy to ignore the established myths as well. But the Hollywood studio system produced assembly line product. No responsibility of any sort was ever on the agenda. The bottom line was to attract and entertain audiences. The actual content was virtually inconsequential.

Nearly every one of these films deviates from reality in howlingly egregious ways; some of them make major detours into the lives of entirely fictional characters, abandoning their titular subjects entirely. Anachronism is a given. Art direction, costume and hairstyles are often monstrous hybrids, saying more about the time period in which the film was produced than the era in which the story is supposed to take place. Women are invariably dressed with FAR more nakedness (showing more of the legs, arms and cleavage) than would have been the case in the depicted time period, for obvious reasons. Likewise with music. Thus with the bulk of the films being made in the 1940s and 1950s, and the majority of the stories set from the 1890s to the 1920s, the music is given contemporary big band orchestration out of some apparent terror, probably an accurate one, that audiences would flee if more historically accurate arrangements were used.

Don’t get me wrong. All of this license would be more than justified if these films turned out to be entertaining. The best known and loved of the genre (Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Al Jolson Story, Gypsy) are, of course. But a surprising percentage of the genre are a deadly cocktail of boredom and kitsch, so much so, that when I think of the genre, those bad qualities spring foremost to my mind. What in theory should be the most entertaining of cinematic genres turns out to be one of the least.

Thus we begin part one of our three part series on show biz bio-pics. Follow links below to learn the real stories of the performers. We proceed in chronological order.


Harmony Lane (1935)

Douglass Montgomery, a peculiarly subdued, lacklustre excuse for a movie actor, stars as Stephen Foster in this low budget offering from Mascot Pictures (normally known for westerns, serials, and the like). To its credit, the movie doesn’t ignore the depressing fact of Foster’s alcoholic decent, but the cheap nature of the production takes us perhaps a little too close to Foster’s real-life squalor.  Montgomery’s other notable films included Waterloo Bridge and Little Women, movies for which his sensitive nature was better suited (this is not Chopin after all, but the guy who wrote “Camptown Races”). William Frawley is welcome as Foster’s rival Ed Christy, Joseph Cawthorn as his music teacher, and Clarence Muse as “Old Joe”, the inspiration for a minstrel song


Annie Oakley (1935)

This movie is pretty perfect. Despite her big city accent, Barbara Stanwyck is well cast as Annie Oakley , if for no other reason than that she came to be associated with westerns over the succeeding decades of her career. We are conditioned to accept Babs in a fringe jacket, a cowgirl hat rakishly cocked to one side, as she squints down the barrel of a rifle. As in the later musical Annie, Get Your Gun, the focal point of the movie is her romance with a fellow sharpshooter (in real life it was Frank Butler, but here he is fictionalized for some reason into one “Toby Walker”). Melvyn Douglas plays her manager, the equally fictional “Jeff Hogarth”. Pert Kelton and silent comedy vet Andy Clyde are in the cast; it was directed by George Stevens.


The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

A great classic of the genre, probably one of the best films about show business, and it certainly gets the myth and entertainment parts right, even if it buries the facts. The great showman had passed away in 1932, this film does a marvelous job of perpetuating his legacy, through re-creations of his stage show (far more lavish than had ever been possible on stage) and the broad strokes of his life story. For show business buffs, I would venture to say William Powell  IS Flo Ziegfeld, the elegant, slightly naughty impresario who treats all women like queens. Nat Pendleton is hilarious casting for Ziegfeld’s first great success, strong man Eugene Sandow. Frank Morgan plays a fictional rival, one “Billings”. Joseph Cawthorn plays Ziegfeld’s father, a music professor, a character not unlike the one he had played in Harmony Lane. For legal reasons, key people like Lillian Lorraine and Marilyn Miller were written out of the story and replaced with fictions, but Anna Held (of the milk baths) remains (played by Louse Rainer—who only just passed away six weeks ago!) and Billie Burke (who was deeply involved in the making of the film as Ziegfeld’s widow) is played by Myrna Loy. It’s rewarding to see Fanny Brice in the film as herself. Some of the fudging (as it always is) is nearly unbearable. For some reason the movie pretends that Ray Bolger was a stage hand to whom Ziegfeld “gave his big chance”. (In reality Bolger was a vaudeville veteran and star before going on the Broadway stage). It’s especially weird to watch that lie because Bolger plays himself in the film. It’s the kind of WTF moment that characterizes the genre, though here we mind it less because it’s such a good movie. There are two “sequels” to this film, though they are even more fictional than this one.


Rose of Washington Square (1939) 

This movie is wiser than most in the genre for it has the good grace to change the names of its main characters for its fictionalization. Though plainly based on Fanny Brice‘s relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein, and employing two well-known Brice musical numbers (the title song and “My Man”) the producers have scrubbed the tale of any ethnicity. The main characters (Jewish in real life) are now as WASPY as can be and played by Alice Faye and Tyrone Power (who’d teamed in a similar musical confection Alexander’s Ragtime Band the previous year). As we’ll see, this is one of many such bio-pics Faye would star in (unaccountably). It marked a fall from grace for Al Jolson, for the first time no longer the star of the picture; he’s third billed as a character that seems modeled more on Eddie Cantor). And though it’s theoretically set in the 1920s, the music and the styles much more reflect the tastes of 1939, which will be the norm for the rest of the life of the genre. Fictional as it is, this film didn’t stop Brice and Arnstein from suing 20th Century Fox.


Swannee River (1939)

Don Ameche, who had just starred in the smash hit The Story of Alexander Graham Bell is now Fox’s “Mr. Biography” and stars in yet another film about Stephen Foster.  This must have galled former minstrel man and singer of “Swannee” Al Jolson , who is only third billed in this picture, the last one in which he ever appeared in which he didn’t play himself. Here Jolson plays rival E.P. Christy who gets to sponge off of Foster’s creations while Foster struggles with family pressures and a fickle public. The film is nearly as fictional as Rose of Washington Square, but since all of the characters were long dead, the film makers could take a huge amount of license.


The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

This is the last of the original Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers  vehicles, apart from a reunion ten years later in The Barkleys of Broadway. Interestingly they went out on a note both romantic and somber, about the great ballroom dance team Vernon and Irene Castle . It’s a terrific love story, but one with a tragic ending that can’t be fudged (Vernon died in a plane crash while serving in World War One). It’s an Astaire and Rogers vehicle though, so it certainly succeeds as entertainment with the pair’s great screen chemistry, and their re-creations of the Castles’ famous groundbreaking dances. Much of the actual story is silliness. Vernon’s previous career as a comedian with Lew Fields (playing himself!) is made to look like some sort of horrible indignity, when in reality it was one of the best gigs to be had in show business at the time. Edna May Oliver plays their fictionalized angel and benefactor; Walter Brennan plays their fictionalized man-servant and comic relief (who continues to serve them for free even as they starve in Paris. Please! Tell me where I too can get a comical servant who’ll work for free!)


Lillian Russell (1940)

Alice Faye as “The American Beauty” Lillian Russell. Faye is sort of a black hole at the center of this film, which seems to have the premise that Russell, the biggest star of her day, was defined and propelled to stardom by all the men in her life, including, her third husband the composer Edward Solomon (Don Ameche), her fourth husband the newspaperman Alexander Moore (Henry Fonda), her lover Diamond Jim Brady, here reduced to something more platonic, (Edward Arnold, well cast), and impresario Tony Pastor (Leo Carillo). On the plus side, Weber and Fields plays themselves, and Eddie Foy Jr. plays his own dad. This was the same year Fonda starred in The Grapes of Wrath and The Return of Frank James so I guess his ego could take being third billed in this mediocre bio-pic.


Lady With Red Hair (1940)

Miriam Hopkins portrays Mrs. Leslie Carter in this bio-pic about the great Broadway actress, who had passed away only three years before. Claude Rains portrays David Belasco. 


Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) 

At one point I considered ranking these films, but it was too difficult to do so since so many of the movies are bad or mediocre — at least a dozen would be tied for worst. But Yankee Doodle Dandy would be my contender for best all around, or at least on my short list. James Cagney tears it up as his hero George M. Cohan, so right in so many ways. Cagney tap danced in vaudeville; this film is the best showcase he ever had in Hollywood for displaying those skills. His famous simple acting style was inherited from Cohan. And it is one Irish-American’s tribute to his Irish-American forebear. Equally touching (and accurate) is Walter Huston’s portrayal of Cohan’s legendary dad Jerry, a gentle and generous pushover. Released just as America was entering World War Two, it struck the right note of patriotism at just the right time. And, amazingly, it cleaves very closely to the true story of Cohan’s life. (The biggest difference being the replacement of Cohan’s real first wife Ethel Levey, with the fictional “Mary”, whom here becomes the inspiration for the Cohan song by the same name.) Eddie Foy Jr. plays his dad again, and for some additional stunt casting Jeanne Cagney (Jimmy’s sister) plays Josie Cohan, George M.’s sister. Irene Manning plays Fay Templeton; singer Frances Langford is Nora Bayes. 


Gentleman Jim (1942)

One of the more insulting things that Warner Brothers did to its audience more than once was to try to make us believe that the English accented Errol Flynn (he was actually Tasmanian) had that accent because he was “Irish”. I’ve yet to meet an adult person yet who was so dumb he mixed up those two nationalities — small wars have been fought over less. Nevertheless, they cast Flynn as pioneering Irish-American boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett and Flynn relished the role, performing most of the boxing scenes himself. This is Hollywood, if Flynn was nothing like the real life Corbett (whose autobiography this film is based on), he simply transforms Corbett into an Errol Flynn star turn and the movie does have a kind of magic because of it. William Frawley plays his manager. The gist of the film is about Gentleman Jim’s role in the adoption of Marquess of Queensberry rules to boxing and the resulting public acceptance of pugilism as a sport. Corbett was a show biz figure in addition to being a sportsman (he toured vaudeville after he became famous) and this movie cleaves heavily to the show biz bio-pic formula, thus its inclusion here.


Shine On, Harvest Moon (1944)

Almost everything is fictional in this bio-pic about Nora Bayes and Jack NorworthAnn Sheridan is badly cast as Bayes. She neither looks like her nor is she even Jewish, nor does she sing any of her own songs — her vocals were dubbed by another singer. The film is full of songs, only two of which were identified with Bayes. Bayes made plenty of tunes famous, but the only one which they include in the film is the title song, which was co-written by Bayes and her husband/partner Norworth, here played by one Dennis Morgan. The film-makers are most diligent in showing us Ann Sheridan’s legs, despite the fact that we never would have seen Bayes’ legs (the events take place prior to the shortening of skirt lengths). Jack Carson and Marie Wilson play a pair of fictitious vaudevillians. (And come to think of it, so do Sheridan and Morgan).


Irish Eyes Are Smiling (1944)

Ah! At last! The Ernest R. Ball bio-pic the world has been clamoring for! I’ve not seen it yet but it is cast with the usual offenders.


Buffalo Bill (1944)

Joel McCrea plays one of America’s greatest showmen Buffalo Bill Cody in a film that trades on his name but misses the point of his existence. The picture ignores Cody’s life in show biz (where he made a real, tangible mark) until the film’s last ten minutes, and spends the balance of the picture on fictitious western exploits, depicting him as brokering peace between soldiers and Indians who never existed. But those last ten minutes (in glorious Technicolor) are worth it, for me anyway. The sight of McCrea in full Buffalo Bill drag saying goodbye to his audience makes me wish we’d seen him say hello to his audience! Thomas Mitchell floats in and out of the picture as the man who made Cody’s legend in dime novels, Ned Buntline. 

Poster - Rhapsody in Blue (1945)_06

Rhapsody in Blue (1945) 

One of the more confounding things classic Hollywood did is make bio-pics about composers. One understands the logic. Composers come with song catalogs — audiences know they will hear their favorite tunes and there will be lots of musical numbers. The difficulty is coming up with a plot or anything even remotely cinematic to look at. It’s just guys sitting at a piano, frowning, playing for a second, and then scribbling on a sheet of paper with a pencil. The soporific Robert Alda  gives the best performance of his sleepy career as George Gershwin, a towering genius of American music precisely because he spent his time writing tunes and not doing interesting stuff like, say, pushing a grapefruit in his gun moll’s face, which may be terrible manners but is excellent cinema. The saving grace of the film is of course lots of music (Gershwin’s protege Oscar Levant dubbed the piano parts) and lots of real show biz figures playing themselves, such as Paul Whiteman, Al Jolson, George White and Hazel Scott. 

This is Part One of a Three Part series. Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three over the next few days! 

Three Cheers for The Italians in Vaudeville!

Posted in Italian, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on March 19, 2014 by travsd
Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville: Italian-American

It’s St. Joseph’s Day! Which is kind of like St. Patrick’s Day for Italians, except in New York we also have Columbus Day, the Feast of San Gennaro, the Giglio Festival, and about nine or ten other such annual celebrations. Don’t get me wrong. I’m from Rhode Island, where EVERY day is Italian American appreciation day — or ELSE! I was raised to think everyone is Catholic, the tastiest food has red sauce, and the most beautiful women have Mediterranean noses. So sue me! But not with a lawyer from Providence!

So here’s a little shout out to Italians and Italian-Americans in variety and vaudeville.
The roots of course go back to the old country. The origin of much of western clowning and comedy tradition lies in the Italian commedia dell’arte. Italian circus brought American vaudeville countless acrobats . The annals of vaudeville are chock full with acrobats and magicians with Italianate names. Some were real. But the appeal was so great, many artists would fake an Italian name. (And, like every other ethnic group, Italians were the subject of comic ethnic stereotype. The most famous purveyor of what might be called “Italian face” was Chico Marx).
Two of the most important vaudeville impresarios Tony Pastor and Sylvester Poli, were Italian Americans. Important Italian stars from vaudeville included  Jimmy Durante, Robert Alda, Don Ameche, Billy Barty, Rudolph ValentinoJimmy Savo, Joey Faye, Nick Lucas, Rose Marie, Bernardo de Pace, the Ponselle Sisters, Karyl Norman, Miss Patricola, Leopoldo Fregoli, Tess Gardella, the Great Chefalo, Enrico Rastelli, the Roma Brothers, the Mosconi Brothers and Galetti’s Monkeys. Others like Lou Costello and Ann Corio came  from burlesque. For many more, see my Italian-Americans in vaudeville sub-category here.
And for a little squib on varieta, the all-Italian American vaudeville, go here.

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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